Sen. Casey: More of the same from Gen. Petraeus

By Jerome L. Sherman, Post Gazette

WASHINGTON -- Pennsylvania's Sen. Bob Casey yesterday said testimony from the top U.S. military commander in Iraq delivered "more of the same," and he challenged Gen. David Petraeus' repeated claims of progress in the training of Iraqi security forces.

"I think you can understand," Mr. Casey, a Democrat, told Gen. Petraeus during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, "not just the general frustration we feel, but, frankly, some of the skepticism we feel about your assertions in the past and your assertions here, as it compares to what the reality is."

The commander was on Capitol Hill for a second round of all-day grilling by lawmakers about the success of the U.S. troop "surge" in Iraq, and Mr. Casey's first chance to question him came after nearly four hours of testimony.

Unlike some of his Democratic colleagues, the freshman senator avoided a full-throated condemnation of the war. But he described Gen. Petraeus' portrayal of the conflict as overly optimistic.

He cited a series of recent reports, including last month's National Intelligence Estimate, arguing that Iraq's nascent security forces are far from ready to take the lead in the fighting, a prerequisite for the U.S. military to begin redeploying its troops.

In his opening statement, Gen. Petraeus told senators that Iraqi units "have made progress toward achieving sustainable security," despite many setbacks. "As a result," he said, "the U.S. will be in a position to reduce its forces in Iraq in the months ahead," predicting a withdrawal of as many as 30,000 American troops by next summer.

Mr. Casey pointed out that Gen. Petraeus had spoken of "tangible progress" as early as September 2004, when the general was in charge of training Iraqi forces.

The general defended his earlier claims, made in a Washington Post opinion offering, claiming that he had, in fact, seen progress then. But an explosion of sectarian violence in the last year tore apart some units. "Let's just remember, they've taken serious loses," the general said.

He compared the training of the Iraqi security forces with "building the world's biggest airplane while in flight, while being shot at."

On Monday night, two of Western Pennsylvania's Republican lawmakers -- Rep. Tim Murphy of Upper St. Clair and Rep. Phil English of Erie -- both called for the United States to start transferring control of the battlefield to Iraqi forces as quickly as possible.

"American troops have met their military objectives with success," Mr. Murphy said in a statement. "I believe a full transition of military control over to the Iraqi military, coupled with a measured redeployment of our troops from Iraq, gives America flexibility to deal with additional threats around the globe and here at home."

"American troops have out-performed expectations and have significantly improved the security situation in parts of Iraq," Mr. English said. "The Iraqi government has to take immediate steps to assume responsibility for the future of its country and protection of its citizens."